Minus One: The Story of Amy Palmiero-Winters

 

Just like you and me. Except not.

Amy Palmiero-Winters is a pretty impressive woman. Single mother of two, former welder, 37-year-old running thousands of miles a year. These things in themselves deserve a hardy round of applause – probably worthy of a human-interest write-up in the Hicksville, N.Y., community paper.

That she does it all with half of a left leg earns her full-page features in the New York Times, a slew of awards and the unwavering pride of any and all with I-think-I-can attitudes. Her competitive feats, on the other hand, have little to do with the prosthetic limb hinged to her kneecap. She’s not a sprinter like slighted almost-Olympian Oscar Pistorius. Not a marathoner either. Instead she runs “ultra distance,” a form of semi-masochistic, 100-plus mile endurance trekking that would kill serious runners, let alone weekend treadmill stars.  

Palmiero-Winters manages distances that tire most drivers. On Jan. 1, she banged out 130.1 miles in the 24-hour Run To The Future in Glendale, Ariz., and by so doing, cemented a spot on the U.S. Track and Field team for the 24-Hour Worlds in mid-May. Come dead of summer, she’ll traverse three mountain ranges and Death Valley during the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that abuses entrants with 130-degree heat and asphalt made of fire.

Courtesy of USA Today

Things that explicitly namecheck “Bad” and “Death” don’t generally appeal to 5-foot-8, 117-pound women – or anybody with sanity, really. For Palmiero-Winters, these to-the-brink challenges are the facts of life. She sticks it to her doubters. She sticks it to her once-broken body. She sticks it to the conventional limitations of the cardiovascular system. A hundred thirty miles? No problem.

Well, except for the plastic blade macerating the skin and bone where real meets faux. That’s gonna burn like hell. She ran the Badwater last year, too, but had to call it quits after 100 miles because the heat from the pavement had turned her prosthetic into something of a frying pan.  

On April 14, she landed the Sullivan Award, grafting her name to the immortal likes of Bobby Jones, Wilma Rudolph, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and a historic slew of other outstanding amateur athletes. She’s been nominated for an ESPY, selected Runners World Hero, named USATF athlete of the week, and on and on – achievements that rank, regardless of what prestige might suggest, nowhere near the triumphs that got her here.

Not close. No way. Not with this life story.

Amy begins running at age 8. She enters her first race with shoes that don’t fit, so she stuffs them with toilet paper. She finishes dead last. Because you now know what she’s capable of, you also know that “last” doesn’t phase Amy. “It sparked something inside of me,” she told USA Today.

Amy runs because her brothers run. She runs on the job, as a delivery girl. She runs track in high school. She runs everywhere. And she keeps running, until some hotshot guns a stop sign. Amy, 21, is on a motorcycle. The car wins, flattening her left foot and ankle like a griddlecake. 

She’s gonna keep running. Screw the doctors – 25 surgeries on and they still haven’t fixed her mangled limb. The arteries aren’t taking. Bones are fusing. One leg is a size 7 1/2. The other is a 4. This is a mess, and there’s only one thing left to do. Amy’s going to run her leg off. 

Actually run her leg off.

So she enters a marathon in Columbus, Ohio. Four hours later, she knows for sure that it’s time to part ways with what’s left of her lower leg. She goes under the knife because, quite frankly, four hours isn’t gonna cut it. This is 1997. Nine years later, she destroys the Chicago Marathon. 3:04:16. Personal best.

She wins a marathon while pregnant. Her children are 4 and 6.  

Now Palmiero-Winters works at a high-tech prosthetics maker, A Step Ahead, but she’s really in the business of making jaws drop. Last year, she started and finished 10 ultra distance competitions. She does Ironmans, triathlons, 50 Ks, 100 Ks. She does Ks so long you have to stop measuring. Marathons aren’t really her style anymore – 26 miles? Please – so when she does run them (usually six times a year), she makes sure to push a wheelchair the whole way.

People in wheelchairs deserve to run, too.

Courtesy of USA Today

As you can imagine – you can’t imagine, but try – Amy Palmiero-Winters’ right leg takes an ungodly beating. Most ultra distance runners jog 20 to 50-mile training routes on back-to-back days, but the pressure generated from such a regimen would crush fibers in her residual limb. Instead, once a week, she knocks out 80 miles in her sleep. Or rather, in her kids’ sleep. She puts them to bed, she heads for the front door, she runs until sunrise. And then she showers for work. 

She says that going without sleep will pay off come Worlds in France.

Palmiero-Winters has been compared to Jackie Robinson. Her friends think of her as something of a superhuman, an “ultra human” maybe. But Amy still sweats like the rest of us – in fact, it accumulates in her artificial socket. So she pours it out every couple miles. And keeps running.

– Robbie

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